Public Participation in Times of the Migrant Crisis

Germany’s “Willkommenskultur”, or welcoming culture towards migrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa beginning in the summer of 2015 garnered great praise from around the world. However, within the European Union and in particular on the domestic front, Chancellor Merkel’s unilateral tour de force has faced stiff opposition and even incited anger. The migrant crisis presents a fundamental dilemma to the democratic fabric of Germany: on the one hand, the current situation urgently calls for more public political participation. Many citizens appear to disagree strongly with Merkel’s policies, and see the government’s recent actions as a manifest crisis of political democratic legitimation. On the other hand, the novel populist pressures that are surfacing after more than seven decades without dominant nationalistic sentiments in Germany, suggest that this inflammatory issue should be withdrawn from too much public involvement. How should Germany’s democracy deal with this dilemma? How can democratic institutions be modified, or created, in order to navigate the pitfalls of more or less public participation?

Why more public participation?

The influx of migrants to Germany is unprecedented in magnitude, and it is far from over: more than a million have arrived in the past year alone. Undoubtedly, the sheer scale of this migration will affect not only the demographic, but also the social livelihood of the current German citizenry in the short- as well as long-run. Germany is encountering a crucial historical moment that will influence its national identity for decades to come. On this highway toward multiculturalism, opinions on how to deal with the crisis diverge greatly. A significant group of Germans have grown dissatisfied with Merkel’s strong-handed, morally motivated opening of the floodgates to all migrants. Many sense that current policy decisions are flippant, and not within the Chancellor’s democratic mandate: when it comes to such deep-reaching political decisions, citizens want to have a say. Instead, they feel an estrangement between the electorate and its elected politicians, and a loss of the popular ownership that is deemed vital to a functioning democracy. To resuscitate democracy, it seems, the mere existence of functional institutions is not enough. More direct and vigorous public participation–excitement, debate, political competition–is required to engage the whole spectrum of society. The crisis of migration has exposed and aggravated the crisis of public participation in Germany.

Arguably, populist parties have succeeded in invigorating public participation, attempting to bring the parliament, which apparently developed into a distant microcosm unreflective of the citizenry’s very disparate ideas of how to deal with the migrant crisis, back down to earth. They picked up the sentiments of alienation from the political mainstream. France’s Front National, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, Austria’s FPÖ, and Germany’s PEGIDA and AfD movements have, amongst others, successfully mobilised those citizens who were previously overwhelmed by apathy and a feeling of powerlessness. There is merit in this outcome: the rise of populism awakened citizens from their passivity and stimulated rigorous political debate, broadening public participation in Germany.

The dangers of more public participation

At what cost? The populist party programmes, Euro-sceptic, anti-immigrant, and discriminatory against Muslims and other foreigners, endanger the cohesiveness of the European Union–and thereby a construct that has secured peace for seven decades on a continent scarred by two world wars in thirty years and continuous conflict for centuries. The moment of migrant crisis is threatening to dismantle the work of many generations.

Further, are citizens supporting populist parties out of genuine belief in their programmes? Oftentimes, it appears, voting for these parties is rather an exclamation of intense discontent with the current political leadership, an expressive last line of defence against the specific policies of the mainstream establishment rather than a grounded, substantial conviction in nationalist, anti- immigrant, anti-Islamic values. Even if populist parties bring many citizens back into the political arena in the voting procedure, their numerical support mainly offers a public display of resentment towards the grand coalition and Angela Merkel, but not a real, deliberate engagement of the public that proposes more effective strategies to tackle the crisis.

Naturally, voting for populist parties is a radical means to advance the wish for more public participation. Plebiscites are perhaps the most obvious method of voicing popular demand in distanced, representative democracies. However, they are marred by several constraints, next to the apparent worry about the majority asserting itself forcefully on a minority: firstly, they reflect the opinion of only a fraction of society, namely those who are bothered by the matter in question. For example, the Dutch referendum on the Association Agreement between the European Union and the Ukraine in April 2016 was attended by 32% of voters, barely reaching the required quorum.

While 61% of attendees voted against the agreement, the low turnout signified that overall, only 18% of the population were truly in favour the referendum’s result. Secondly, similarly to the numerical support for populist parties, the referendum as a means to public participation fails to foster genuine involvement that engages deeply with the issue at hand. Rather, it becomes a vent for the expression of popular sentiment, making it an expressive, rather than a pragmatic vote. The Dutch referendum, for example, became a rallying point for Eurosceptics: the vote revolved more about membership in the European Union than it did about the actual EU-Ukraine agreement. Foreign minister of Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn, summarised this concern when he argued that “the referendum is not an adequate instrument to answer complex questions in a parliamentarian democracy”. Instead of responding to sober questions, citizens merely give their governments a warning, just “something to think about”.

Why Germany shouldn’t allow more public participation

The migrant crisis is a pressure cooker of a political issue. It is highly complex, combining a wide variety of problems at high density, which can easily implode if not monitored and controlled. Recently, the linkage between security and the migration has become prominent in public discussions, as one of the Paris attackers was an asylum seeker. Terror in France and Belgium, as well as events such as the systematised sexual abuse of women during New Years in Cologne, may distort long-term differentiated thinking, and thus harm the ability of the electorate to participate more deeply in political decision-making. Limited information, cultural prejudice, and the fear of the foreign are amongst the many factors which would make placing this sensitive issue at the whim of the people excessively dangerous.

Potential ways forward

Chancellor Merkel’s mantra throughout the migrant crisis is “Wir schaffen das!”, which roughly translates to “We can do this!”. But can we? The discontentment towards the political leadership is partially rooted in the lack of realistic assessments in public debate today. Who are the people arriving in Germany–are they truly refugees who seek asylum because they otherwise face abuse or even death in their home countries, or are they merely economic migrants? What are the integrative capacities of Germany, and what are the most effective methods to integrate foreigners into the country? Are current policies in accord with German constitutional law? Instead of answering such questions, popular passions, electoral interests, and politics of moralism rule, where false dichotomies between “Yes, we definitely can!” and “No, we really can’t.” are presented.

Depoliticisation of decision-making, and in specific the implementation of professionalised committees that attempt to answer the aforementioned questions can improve the effective functioning of democracy–while eliminating the dangers of momentary political protuberances, which can frequently occur in these times of heightened awareness. They bodies must at the same time ensure that deliberative parliamentary processes are not insulated from the widely differentiated desires of the populace. For example, an instituted and constitutionally anchored regular random sample of the population could take up a consultative responsibility which informs parliament in its elite decision-making process. Democracy, in this line of thinking, is not characterised by the active control through people power, as suggested by populist parties and plebiscites, but through the availability of institutionalised avenues through which citizens can contest and assert power passively.

It is critical to recognise that a country with a constitution built upon basic human rights must give not only residents, but also people who reside within its territory for a prolonged periods– migrants–the ability to shape the laws to which they are subject. If, as the constitution declares, “all persons shall be equal before the law”, then it is necessary to incorporate a forum for public deliberation in which migrants are included–not through trusted representatives, but by members of their own migrant communities, those with a deep shared experience of the process of immigration and then integration. This consultation of migrant perspectives, albeit without the possibility of equal voting rights, ensures that public participation realises the transformation of what is called “public”. Not only are Germans then exposed to the substantive viewpoints of migrants, but migrants are also forced to reflect upon the expectations, feelings, (mis)perceptions that are held and leveraged against them by the German citizenry

Attention to the fragile construct of democracy

Bernd Lucke, the founder of the AfD, proclaimed that the five percent hurdle to the German parliament is too high: in the 2013 elections, nearly 7 million voters, or 16%, went unrepresented in the final composition of the parliament as three large parties very narrowly missed the hurdle. The rule was originally incorporated out of fear for fractured party politics and its ability to hamper the formation of a functioning government, which assisted Hitler and his NSDAP in its ascendancy to power. Lucke argues that these worries do not pertain to today’s political landscape, and that more party competition would do complacent mainstream parties much good. However, as much as the reduction or elimination of the hurdle might help in strengthening public participation, it would weaken governmental stability and endanger its effective functionality in times of great need for deep-reaching solutions. It would unnecessarily open up the political battlefield to fragmented splinter groups and populist parties that punch above their weight due to momentary historic circumstances.

The crisis of public participation that the migrant crisis has placed in the spotlight must be carefully illuminated from all angles, and citizens as well as policymakers must be watchful not to exploit this moment to make potentially fatal modifications to the fragile construct of democracy. With its historical experiences, Germany has exerted itself to balance between excessive proportionality and fragmentation and the so-called tyranny of the majority, while avoiding the paternalism resulting from too representative a system that relies too much on the ability of its elected politicians. The dilemma of public participation today should not shift this balance in the spur of the moment; German democracy can work around it without sacrificing its core tenets, and the political conflict around seemingly irresolvable values can be harnessed to achieve democratic ends.


Melanie Amann et al. (2013) ‘Democratic Deficit: Is Germany’s Parliamentary Hurdle Obsolete?,’ Der Spiegel (4 October 2013).
Economist Intelligence Unit (2016) ‘Democracy Index 2015’ <accessed at topical_report.aspx?campaignid=DemocracyIndex2015>.

Jane Mansbridge (1999) ‘Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent “Yes”‘, Journal of Politics 61 (3), 628-657.

Chantal Mouffe (2000) ‘Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism’, Institute for Advanced Study, Vienna: Political Science Series, 72.

Pippa Norris (1997) ‘Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems’, International Political Science Review 18(3), 297–312.

Philip Pettit (2004) ‘Depoliticizing Democracy’, Ratio Juris 17(1) (March 2004), 52-65.

Die Welt (2016) ‘Referenden sind bloß “Denkzettel and die Regierungen”,’ Die Welt (9 April 2014).

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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